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The lava tubes on the western slopes of Alba Mons as potential Martian colonies

Lava tubes on western flank of Alba Mons
Click for full figure.

In a new paper detailing work they first began in 2019, scientists have now carefully mapped the extensive lava tubes that appear to radially descend westward from the caldera of Alba Mons, the volcano on Mars that has the largest surface area but with a relatively low peak.

The mapped population of 331 lava tube systems has a mean length of 36.2 km, with a total length in the western flank geologic map quadrangle of ∼12,000 km. Individual lava tube systems extend up to ∼400 km, and it is likely that some of our mapped lava tubes are connected such that the total number is actually smaller and lengths (average and maximum) longer.

The map above, figure 10 of their paper, shows volcanic ridges as yellow, collapsed lava tube segments as red, and collapsed lava tube on the volcanic ridge as maroon. The wider map below, shows where this region is located, and gives the larger context.

Overview map

The white rectangle on Alba Mons’ western slopes marks the area covered by the map above.

The scientists estimate that these tubes formed approximately two billion years ago. More important, the evidence suggests that long sections of the tubes remain intact.

This suggests that Alba Mons may host numerous targets for astrobiological exploration with a range in specific conditions (elevation, latitude, and degree of connectivity to the surface), some of which might promote habitability. Lava tubes are most readily thought of as exploration targets for the access they may provide to a sheltered near/subsurface environment. Lava tubes may be loci of both volcanic heat and depressions that collect or concentrate water or ices. The collapse features observed along lava tube systems on the western flank of Alba Mons provide an abundance of these, but the uncollapsed extents of the lava tube systems could facilitate exploration through near-surface drilling of subsurface cavities partially to nearly completely sealed from the Martian surface. [emphasis mine]

This region is located about 750 miles east of the candidate landing zone for SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, and sits smack dab in the middle of the mid-latitudes where orbital data has found extensive glacial features. Thus, these tubes, especially those sections sealed from the outside world, could harbor large quantities of water ice.

Though lots of near surface ice has been found at the Starship landing zone, any human colony there will need to do a lot of construction to create protection from radiation and sealed environments for the colonists. The lava tubes however would provide natural shielding from radiation, an interior space that can quickly be sealed, and a less harsh thermal environment, since the temperature would not experience the day/night cycle.

Putting a colony in these tubes however will likely involve politics. Because, as the paper notes, these tubes might also be ideal locations for finding past (or even existing) Martian life, there is going to be opposition should anyone want to put a colony within them. Scientists will fear contamination, both of that Martian life as well as the humans who make contact with it. Others will want to protect that Martian life from any contact. And of course there will be a third group who will oppose any exploration there, merely out of fear.

I suspect it will be the Martian colonists themselves who will eventually move into this region, and they will do so when they decide they are self-sufficient enough to ignore the oppressive dictates of their rulers on Earth.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • pzatchok

    I wonder if we could convince China to infect Mars with earth microbes? Who would sanction them or even stop them?
    That will end most of the life on mars arguments. That question will NEVER be answered to true believers though. Just like climate change believers.

  • I must say, that the author has AcademicSpeak nailed. There is nothing wrong with it, but the overall feeling is ‘Fund Me!’.

  • Edward

    I think that sending Humans to Mars for months is a waste of money and time..

    Better to have 100+ robots, flying, floating, crawling, orbiting Mars and returning samples to Earth is better.

  • Edward_2

    Ooops! I should have posted as Edward_2

  • Star Bird

    Marvin and k-9,s vacation spot

  • Edward

    Edward_2 wrote: “I think that sending Humans to Mars for months is a waste of money and time.. Better to have 100+ robots, flying, floating, crawling, orbiting Mars and returning samples to Earth is better.

    How we wish we had 100+ robots at Mars. Unfortunately, we spend a billion dollars or more to send one robot to Mars (Perseverance was a bit more than $2 billion), and their explorations are very slow and inefficient.

    Compare these robots with the Apollo astronauts on the Moon. They examined many samples, chose a small percentage for return, and covered large areas, all within the hours (up to three days) available to them.

    If Starship is as inexpensive as expected, putting six humans on Mars may be a similar cost as putting one rover on the surface.

  • Edward

    To continue my thoughts on Edward_2’s comments:
    An advantage to making a large number of identical satellites or probes is that they become low cost per unit. Iridium put up 77 communication satellites, and after the first five or ten, they cost the company only $5 million each to make. The total cost was under $1/2 billion, but the launch costs (and some other setup costs) brought the total cost to start the service $3 billion. The satellites became so inexpensive that the launch costs were four times the cost of the satellites.

    Mars Exploration has been different. Those probes or rovers tend to cost more than the launch costs. The cost of launch has been a limiting factor in the exploration of space. With launch costs decreasing, and with the possibility of lower costs for the probes, we may see more mass-produced inexpensive probes in the near future. We may get those hundred robots at Mars.

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